Don't Forget 2004: A Book Review and Musings on Political Campaigns

I finished reading Jayshree Sundar’s Don’t Forget 2004 on the first anniversary of a very unlikely electoral win of recent times. Not even its most passionate supporters gave Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress more than 170 seats in the (294-member) Bengal Assembly elections of 2021. TMC had won 210+ seats in the 2016 elections, and BJP threatened to – some exit polls predicted – halve that tally. It was supposed to be a BJP juggernaut all the way. 

Don’t Forget 2004 is a smoothly written, exciting account of advertising agency Leo Burnett’s delivery of the 2004 election campaign for the Indian National Congress. Starting from the invitation to a pitch (that sounded like a prank call), it is a blow-by-blow account of the events of the four hectic months that changed the Congress’ electoral fortunes and. It was a stunning come-from-behind victory that no one expected and depended a lot on the campaign.

The ‘Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ka saath’ campaign won several awards that year. The book thoroughly explains how it started by looking for chinks in BJP’s India Shining campaign and then came up with the insight that the middle and lower classes hadn’t got anything in the shining country. ‘Aam aadmi ko kya mila’, asked the campaign and presented Congress as the alternative. Of course, the aam aadmi plank became even bigger later on!

The book made me wonder if all memorable political campaigns are essentially about the underdog. Which is, more likely, to be the Opposition – out of power. Whenever a political party in power has tried to tom-tom its achievements, it has been met with ridicule and disbelief at worst or indifference and ignorance at best. The first party – in my memory – to do so with the help of an advertising agency was Congress itself in 1989.

Congress appointed Rediffusion for its re-election campaign in 1989, and a reasonably high-voltage (not to mention unique) campaign was drummed up. With a tagline My Heart Beats for India, it presented a rather pessimistic view about how divisive forces (presumably in the Opposition) were sabotaging Congress and Rajiv Gandhi’s bid to shape up India through the Panchayati Raj, telecom revolution, communal harmony and so on. As was evident from the results, the campaign bombed spectacularly.

Of course, it made zero sense that the incumbent government was crying about things that went wrong. You had a four-fifth majority in the Lok Sabha, for God’s sake! While Congress spent tons of money on the campaign, the Opposition got free publicity when the media decided to lampoon the campaign. (Yes, children, this was a thing. The media used to criticise and mock the government!) Not only the thought, even the execution got trolled.

Indian Express ran cartoons poking fun at how the village huts in the ads looked like ‘Meherauli farmhouses’ – supposed to be the haunts of Rajiv Gandhi and his well-heeled friends. In one meeting described in Don’t Forget 2004, when an ad visual is presented, all the three Gandhi family members jumped up to point out that the homes in the ad didn’t look like poor villagers’ homes. Clearly, they had learnt their lesson from 1989!

The 1991 Congress campaign had more bite. The elections were called after two governments (under VP Singh and Chandrasekhar) folded up in less than two years, and Congress was projecting itself as a stable alternative. One ad in the campaign showed a little boy asking, ‘Papa, didn’t you say that elections happened once in five years?’ Showcasing the pitfalls of smaller parties in a coalition, it drove home the point of revolving-door governments quite well.

Nearly a decade later, BJP managed to coalesce the national sentiment against coalition governments (including two mini-stints for himself) into a viable campaign for their prime ministerial candidate: ‘Ab ki baari, Atal Bihari!’ BJP’s momentum had started in 1992 with LK Advani’s infamous rath yatra, but Ram Mandir couldn’t have (then) been a single-point agenda for a national party. Hence, Vajpayee became that statesman-like face who would deliver strong governance even with multiple coalition partners.

The confidence of having delivered strong governance was so high that BJP called early elections in 2004 (in May instead of October) and rolled out the (now infamous) India Shining campaign. Don’t Forget 2004 recounts how the agency did research with voters in the lower strata, to counter the optimistic government narrative with a strong anti-incumbent message that eventually segued into promoting Congress’ many achievements in the 50+ years of its rule in post-Independence India.

Congress presided over one of the fastest-growing periods of the Indian economy but it was also a period of great corruption and annoyance over nepotism, which led to the formation of at least one major political party (AAP) and the re-energising of the BJP under Narendra Modi. It is under Modi that the political slogan Achhe Din Aanewale Hain was coined. This line became a force of nature in the runup to the 2014 elections.

There was also a follow-up line to project the prime ministerial candidate: Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar, and it was used to highlight individual shortcomings of the UPA government. Bahut hua mehengai ka maar / Ab ki baar…; Bandh karo nariyon pe atyachar / Ab ki baar… etc. While it didn’t have the all-encompassing allure of Achhe Din, it was a very hardworking line. It fit into every category and hit the government’s negatives hard.

What was different in 2014 from 2004 was that the ubiquitous presence of social media and trolling was no longer the exclusive domain of the media. Millions of social media users (including BJP’s much-vaunted IT Cell) started making their own versions of the Ab ki Baar slogan. Many were spoofs, but it was free propagation of the line at the end of the day. Achhe Din was well and truly upon us, all around us.

I tried remembering BJP’s 2019 campaign slogan and gave up. Finally, I Googled it to find Sankalp Bharat, Sashakt Bharat on the cover of its manifesto and though there are campaign posters around Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas. Both lines are absolutely inert and don’t tick off any boxes of what makes a good marketing slogan. A government in power just doesn’t have the chutzpah of a rabble-rousing opposition. BJP proved this in 2014 and 2019.

In 2019, BJP had more resources than in 2014 and – their supporters would argue – achievements too. But they could not come up with a memorable campaign line. A government is just too satisfied in the cocoon of their lal-batti Ambassadors to come up with a blood-boiling slogan. This was broken twice, in my humble opinion. Once in 1971, when the Opposition asked for Indira Hatao, the prime minister turned that around to say Garibi Hatao

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to announce removing the same poverty that had remained for 25 years of your party’s rule, but Indira Gandhi managed to transform herself into an underdog. Even though she was the Prime Minister, a majority of her party had broken away, and she appeared to have been left alone. She presented herself as the lone crusader for the poor Indians’ rights and won the election on this plank.

Which brings me to the West Bengal elections of 2021. Mamata Banerjee was the sitting CM with a near-three-fourth majority. How was she the underdog? Well, the BJP made her into one. By flying in the entire Union cabinet, by getting TMC MLAs to defect, by harping on the benefits of a ‘double engine sarkar’ (Centre and state working in tandem). Of course, TMC also performed quite poorly in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.

But instead of backing down and accepting defeat, TMC responded with Khela Hawbe. It started as a rap song by a TMC worker (Debanghsu Bhattacharya) to taunt the TMC defectors to BJP, but became a full-blown anthem, reminding the world at large how Mamata Banerjee wasn’t about to give up. Pretty much every TMC candidate in the Bengal elections remixed the song with their own (and Banerjee’s) images – as the song became a viral sensation.

Poll strategist Prashant Kishore later explained that TMC wanted to announce that it was going eyeball to eyeball with BJP. It was critical to counter the usual media narrative about BJP being the only choice and public opinion is strongly in its favour. Of course, there were BJP missteps (of being too hasty in candidate nomination and PM Modi mocking Banerjee rather distastefully) but Khela Hawbe’s inspiring call to cadres and voters played a role.

Coming back to Don’t Forget 2004, the book doesn’t go into political analysis but presents a blow-by-blow account of a massive marketing campaign. Political leaders appear as clients evaluating and approving campaigns. Issues of national import become smart headlines or catchy copy. By avoiding the political, Sundar has skirted controversies and has done a very good job of explaining how advertising is created, and how good advertising sells products. Or gets votes. Or changes history.

[And for no reason at all, or because this is the 75th year of India's Independence, every paragraph has 75 words.]


Jayshree Sundar said…
Many thanks for this review. I found the blog very interesting and you summed up the intent in the last paragraph so insightfully. Bullseye 🎯
Jayshree Sundar.